As a child I studied Greek culture intensely and always felt the Amazons were particularly interesting because it seemed like they challenged the Greek order, which most of Western Civilization is built upon. I suppose that being raised by predominantly by females (many of my relatives being quite tall) presented the idea that women were tough was always a given, rather than an eccentric notion. The world is catching up to this truth... s.l.o.w.l.y.
What little most people know of the legendary Amazon women has come to us from a short entry by Herodotus and other ancient Greeks. Because of this many probably assume that the Amazons were Greeks themselves (false, in fact they were a rival civilization), were a women-only society (false, in many tribes the women were simply equal in every way... including as warriors) and instead of one breast as reported by Herodotus they had two (in the bronze age one simply does not perform cosmetic mastectomies without antibiotics etc. and was propaganda for shock effect).
What has recently come to light is that they were expert archers with technologically advanced recurve bows, riders of horses and used iron weapons in the bronze age. As a Scythian culture they are credited with the creation of trousers, which are great for equestrian archery. Men and women alike wore the pants, quite literally. Their ideas threatened Greek hierarchies and technological superiority.
recurve bow and trousers in animation of a Scythian warrior
With a woman poised to make a serious general election run at the White House and the art world trying to address its deeply ingrained biases Portland based Diane Jacobs' Homage at the Weiden + Kennedy headquarters could not be more topical. Like a lot of anthropological research shows (Andrea Geyer being the most memorable) there are a lot of holes which the artist uses her poetic license to fill.
Jacobs has turned some of the post-warehouse colonnade into a Greek ionic capitaled arcade. It is a nice touch as she then has the front ends of several horses, disappear into the central column. This acknowledges the way the Greek version of this people's history has colored the account. Another nice touch the Amazons horses were smaller than they are today and this is reflected in their size, what's more the tail of each horse is made of female human hair. The binding around the tail is a recreation from historical drawings and burial remnants as well.
The largest feature of the exhibition is a video projection where various Scythian women appear and fade next to a textile map that also shows both the ancient territories and current names.
We see the recurve bow, iron swords, slings, horses and trousers in action with slow moving almost dream like animations.
But the highlight is a column covered in pairs of eggshells modified to look like breasts. Two breasts each... reversing the idea that Amazon women somehow mutilated themselves or as lady Macbeth would later declare to be "unsexed". As a fellow mammal I love how Jacobs has created her own "totem" as she called it. Us citizens are quite uptight and female nipples can cause traffic accidents while in Europe they are just a part of life. By amassing an army of breasts Jacobs has conjured an army of femininity. What is not to love here?
Other elements of the show include a wall with known names of actual Amazon warriors where she has slyly boldfaced the first letter of 6 names which together are the only place the word Amazon appears in the exhibition. High above a projection of an actual tattoo taken off an amazon mummy shows dear being chased by large cats while a recording of a linguist pronouncing the names wafts through the gallery.
Another favorite element are the replica "deer stones", which apparently were related to the goddess of the hunt, Artemis.
There are also some more modern dog tags to connect the warrior motif and a few rudimentary mirrors which are similar to some found in Amazon burials.
What this exhibition thankfully doesn't do is try to recreate the Amazon culture or spell things out too much. Instead it gives us cultural traces and a few poetic moments like the breast totem to consider what we dont know... leave that to anthropologists who have already fueled this exhibition and a growing official recognition of female contributions and precedents. Too much art today is essentially fan art... people researching their hero artists from the 60's and 70's and simply regurgitating facimilies in a white gallery space. It's too easy but what I like about Jacobs (and Andrea Geyer) is the way the present dry historical sources while doing some very restrained yet poignant visual elements that reiterate how we have lost touch with the humanity these women lost to time once had. This isnt a recreation or simple second and third generation fan art but a more respectful homage... a monument to the curiosity these people still instill today. As we learn more can we find a less Hellenistic way to assess both men and women?
These Scythian people as a civilization achieved many accomplishments... whereas Portland tends to favor male artists even though a majority of the curators and art dealers are women themselves. Female artists who receive awards are given them because of the community service they perform often rather than for the ambitious execution of their work. The Amazons were ambitiously equal in all things with their male counterparts and what Jacobs' show gives us is a space to contemplate how even in progressive Portland we tend to celebrate women for the selfless civic utility and beauty rather than their ambitious achievements. The egg breast totem belongs in a high profile collection.
Show ends May 27, 2016 but you might be able to catch it before deinstall on the 28th @ Wieden + Kennedy, 224 NW 13th Ave
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